Q&A: Egyptologist David Silverman on King Tut, Hieroglyphs and His Time at Penn

David Silverman has loved Egypt since he was a child visiting the famous New York City museums with his aunt and brother. During more than four decades as a researcher, he’s helped put together two separate traveling King Tut exhibits, conducted countless fieldwork expeditions, appeared on The Colbert Report — twice — and even testified as an expert in a murder trial.

The year 2017 marks his 40th at the University of Pennsylvania, and starting Oct. 31, the Eckley Brinton Coxe Jr. Professor of Egyptology and Curator of Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section, will teach a new, free online course “Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization.” The course is offered through Penn’s Online Learning Initiative via the Coursera platform. The five lectures will cover, among other topics, how Egyptians understood time, gods and goddesses and mummies, and will use the Penn Museum’s vast artifact collection, showcasing more than 1,000 items to give learners a visual cue.

We spoke with Silverman about his favorite discoveries, how the field has changed and more.

Q: How did your interest in Egypt develop?
A: I had won a contest at the movies, Ivanhoe I think. Afterward, they had a quiz and if you got 100 percent, you got a free pass. I got one, and I heard they were bringing this movie called The Egyptian [so I went to see it]. Turns out it was a horrible movie. It didn’t matter; it spurred my interest in the subject. It never occurred to me you could get a job studying this type of thing. Then in college I took an art course and the first part was about ancient Egypt. It re-hooked me.

Q: After studying the subject in college and graduate school, you then spent a year in Egypt working on a dissertation. What happened when you returned to the United States?
A: I came back and put the final touches on the dissertation and wondered about how I was going to get a job. I’d spent so much time in Chicago at The Oriental Institute, which was their equivalent of our University museum. I was asked if I would like a job in the museum office.

I was there a couple of months when the man who directed the museum said, ‘How would you like to work on the King Tut exhibit.’ I just said sure; I didn’t ask any questions. Very often the decisions you make, you just do them because they feel right, and that was what this was. To be able to work on the Tutankhamun exhibit, which was going to travel around the U.S., was a fantastic opportunity. I wrote the text and the labels used throughout the run.

Q: Then you got an invitation to work at Penn?
A: I received a call to see if I would like to come teach at Penn for one year. It was not a tenure track position. I had a fulltime job at the Field Museum [in Chicago] to return to, so I thought it was a great idea. I had a wife and a 2-year-old, and we trekked off to Philadelphia for one year. The tenure track position emerged halfway through that year…. That was 1977. Next year is my 40th year.

Q: Your job title, aside from curator at the Museum, is Egyptologist. What does that mean exactly?
A: It depends on whom you’re talking to. It’s someone who studies Egypt, but these days there are so many different ways to study Egypt. Previously, most places either trained you as a philologist [someone who studies language] or an archaeologist. Now we also use an anthropological approach, we use all sorts of electronics, we use digital. You can approach it through any of these methods.

Q: What’s unexpected about the field?
A: When you’re working in a field that is popular in the sense that ‘everybody knows something’ about Egypt and thinks they know even more, I frequently get people telling me their theories about what a particular hieroglyph actually means. I’ve gotten many letters telling me exactly how the pyramids were built. When I was in Chicago someone came in and told me he was Osiris [Egyptian god of the dead] and that we had to give him all of our grains. You don’t get a quantum physicist who has these problems. But it keeps it lively.

Q: Finally, can you describe one or two of your favorite discoveries?
A: The first thing I discovered was from the treasures of Tutankhamun. If you’ve ever seen representation of Tutankhamun and his father, males often had holes in their ears, which indicated that they wore earrings. In his tomb there were several pairs of earrings. Many people said this was something they did in childhood, but not adulthood.

[One wooden statue I was packing] had always been photographed from one side. I turned it around and noticed that in the right ear was the back of an earring. This item had traveled in other exhibits but the earring had never been mentioned. It showed that the adults probably wore earrings as well. It was a very simple earring, not fancy. It was just one discovery by observation. Most of the discoveries I make are quirks.

This is another one I love: I was trying to figure out the actual spoken language of ancient Egypt. We don’t have any recordings, but there are decorations in tombs sort of like comic strips such that you could read what the people say to each other. There were areas that indicated direct speech, religious texts that talked about what you should say when you met this god or that god. I was looking for examples that would really strike you as being direct speech. I started collecting all the questions and eventually wrote a dissertation on interrogative constructions in ancient Egypt.

On Saturday, Dec. 10, the Penn Museum will host an Ancient Egypt Open House for those who have taken the course and those considering it, to meet Silverman and learn more.

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